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Coast Guard to suspend search for three missing boaters at sunset today

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close speaks to reporters Tuesday morning in St. Petersburg.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close speaks to reporters Tuesday morning in St. Petersburg.

5:14 p.m.: The only man rescued so far from an overturned boat in the Gulf of Mexico told Coast Guard investigators a bizarre story about the fate of the other three.

Nick Schuyler, 24, told investigators that about two to four hours after their boat capsized Saturday in rough seas, one of the two professional football players gave up hope and let himself be swept away, according to family members of two of the missing men.

A few hours later, the second one did the same.

"We were told that Nick said the two NFL players took their life jackets off and drifted out to sea," said Bob Bleakley, whose son Will, 25, is also still missing.

With former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith gone, only Schuyler and Bleakley remained clinging to the boat.

Then, sometime Monday morning, Will Bleakley thought he saw a light in the distance and decided to take off his life jacket and swim to it, hoping to get help.

"I think he was delusional to think he could swim someplace," Bleakley said.

Ray Sanchez, Cooper's cousin, said the Coast Guard told him the same thing, but cautioned against taking Schuyler's story as gospel at this point.

"We're not 100 percent sure where his head was at," Sanchez said. "He'd been through a lot."

---Craig Pittman and Brant James, Times staff writers

4:08 p.m.: The Coast Guard is ending its search for missing boaters Marquis Cooper, Corey Smith and Will Bleakley at sunset tonight, according to Capt. Timothy Close.

Families were told the news prior to a 4 p.m. press conference. The Coast Guard rescuers said they were confident no survivors would be found in the Gulf of Mexico 60 hours after the search began.

Close said the Coast Guard is aware of "amateur search efforts" that are being conducted and he cautioned people not to endanger themselves.

"Most importantly we don't want any new search and rescue missions," Close said.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission will recover the men's fishing boat, which is still in the gulf, sometime Wednesday. The only other items the Coast Guard found were an orange life vest and a cooler, believed to belong to the men, Close said.

ST. PETERSBURG — As 24-year-old survivor Nick Schuyler recovers, three of his fishing companions remain lost at sea. The Coast Guard is intensely searching the Gulf of Mexico, officials said, though there have been very few developments since finding Schuyler.

Two planes and three ships have covered 20,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexcio, said Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close. The possibility of hypothermia for the remaining three boaters — former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and former local high school and college player Will Bleakley — "is a big concern right now,'' Close said.

A dark jacket with no name was found several miles from the boat, Close said, and it is assumed the jacket is related to the mishap.

Conditions in the gulf improved today, Close said, and the search area has been narrowed based on information from Schuyler.

Cooper, 26, and Corey Smith, 29, and former Crystal River High and University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley, 25, have not been seen since they set out on a fishing trip with Schuyler early Saturday morning. Schuyler, who was airlifted around noon on Monday and is in fair condition at Tampa General Hospital, said the men were pulling anchor about 38 miles offshore when it flipped Saturday afternoon.

They couldn't right the boat but managed to get under it and retrieve life jackets and cling to the boat. Three of them slipped away in the cold, rough water sometime Sunday morning. Schuyler was sitting atop the capsized boat.

Marquis Cooper's father, Bruce, said Coast Guard representatives briefed the family on the likelihood of finding the missing men.

"They aren't too optimistic based on the time they were in the water," said Cooper, who is a Phoenix TV sportscaster. His station, Channel 12, has been following the story closely.

Cooper said he was mentally exhausted and the experience has been "gut-wrenching." But with a smile, he said he thought his son was still alive.

Late this morning, someone in a Siesta Key condominium spotted something with binoculars and called the Sarasota Sheriff's Department, reporting that a body was bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico off Turtle Beach. The Coast Guard was alerted, but the search was quickly called off when deputies determined the floating object was not a body. They believe it was a big fish, said Lt. Chuck Lesaltato.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman said rescue boats are still searching for the missing men. Rescuers are combing a combined area of about 2,000 miles with a C-130 aircraft, a helicopter and three cutters.

The Division 7 Coast Guard, which based in St. Petersburg, is among the most active station in the nation for search-and-rescue missions, Close said.

The search will continue through the day, he said. Computer models suggest the three could be drifting south at just over 1 mph.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Coast Guard to suspend search for three missing boaters at sunset today 03/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 9:46am]
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